Hester Klemm – Sitting down – Out of anger – Telling tales – Songs of hope – Angel of mercy – Alone in the world – Accepting the inevitable – Embrace of the end
A MAN OF STEEL
Rina Prescott reporting
I am sure we all know of Mr. Andrew Parsons, the grandson of our illustrious founder, Charles Algernon Parsons, but do we really know him? His creations can be seen in many a nook and cranny of our University. The bathing facilities. The heating system. Many of the apparatus in the Physics, Biology, and Alchemy labs. Your correspondent was lucky enough to secure a little time with Mr. Parsons. He holds no academic title, does not teach students. All he does is create sheer poetry in steel and iron. I was lucky enough to secure about half an hour of his time, chaperoned by his assistant Miss Felicia Sunderland.
In person, Mr. Parsons is an imposing figure, a massive six feet seven in height, taciturn, and heavily built, with a penetrating gaze that gives one the feeling of being measured. He answered my questions precisely, without a word wasted. One cannot escape the notion that he is wondering where the important questions are. He is not married. He has been at Algernon University since almost the day he was born. He created his first mechanism at the age of three, his first steam engine at the age of ten. He can still recall every single rivet on those engines. His interest is broad, including medical apparatus such as prosthetics, civil engineering such as the elevator for Algernon’s horse-drawn carriages, but most of all, steam engines. His engines power the famous Beast of Algernon, and the Tennant’s airship Lady I, to name but two.
When talking to Mr. Andrew Parsons, one cannot fail to notice that all this sheer genius has not been without ts cost. With his parents passed away, and him not having any human friends apart from Miss Sunderland, one might pity him for his loneliness, but after the interview, Miss Sunderland and I stayed a while to watch him work. Even behind a frightening protective mask and a leather apron, we could see the loving care and attention in his hands as he shaped bars of metal into objects that will move, support, or protect us. His friends and family are his machines.
These pages of text are the most difficult I have ever had to write. These words are not for you, Father. They are not for you Carl, my brother, nor for you, Fatin my sister. Once I am done writing them, I will read them once, then throw them into the fire, in what must seem like a heathen ritual. I care not a whit what it must seem like. I will attempt anything to rid me of this sickness of the mind bestowed on me by that woman. I will write her name. Her name is Hester Klemm.
They put the bag over my head again and half pushed, half carried me across a sandy floor, till I heard a door open, and the sounds of the outside world dimmed. They held my arms. One of them kicked me in the back of the knees and I was pushed down. The blindfold was removed, and Hester Klemm looked at me, smiling. She ran her hand through my hair.
“What is your name, dear?”
I looked back up at her. “You know my name.”
“True. But I want to hear you say it. Answer me please. What is your name.”
“I am Victoria, the Queen of England.”
Hester Klemm laughed. “A sense of humour. So nice to see that in my subjects. Sadly, it is usually the first thing to go once we start. Thank you, my dear.”
She stood up, took a few steps back. “Boys? Help Her Majesty out of her clothes, and give her a seat.” She crossed her arms. “Vorläufig Hosen anhalten.”
I took note that Hester Klemm did not know I understood German, but that was the last collected thought allowed to me. There were three of them. All were large, strong. I was a martial artist. I have been in competitions. I have been in real fights where I could surprise my enemies with unexpected kicks, throws, or punches. But no matter how good you are, once you are surrounded, there is nothing you can do. I tried to jump up, leap at Hester Klemm, but one of them kicked me in the small of the back and I went sprawling. Once I was on the ground, all was lost. They kicked me everywhere they could, pulled me up to punch me down again, stepped on my hands, until the world became a blur of fists, booted feet, and pain, and I could do nothing but try to roll away.
They turned me onto my stomach and one of them stepped on my neck, pinning my face to the stone floor. A hand gripped the collar of my all-environment suit and ripped it off my back. They removed every last scrap of my clothes, then held my hands behind my back, punched me in the stomach to keep me quiet, and slammed me down on a bench. They took ropes, and tied my arms behind me, round the back of the bench. Another rope went round my neck, one round my chest. Finally, they bound my legs to the bench, but not as tightly. They stood back, looking at me.
Hester Klemm walked up to me. She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped some of the blood off my face.
“What is your name, dear?”
I glared at her.
“Go to hell.”
“We are already here, my dear. Let me tell you what I am going to do to you. Regardless of whether you cooperate, we are going to hurt you. Not as much maybe as when you do, but still. From now until the moment I will allow you to die, you will be in pain.” Hester Klemm pointed at the bench. “You came here by airship. Steam engines, instruments, the most advanced achievements of our society. All to find out what we are doing. All I need is a few sturdy planks, and some rope, and a small stack of bricks. They use this torture method in the Far East, against people who have the incorrect religion. It has never failed. Are you a Christian? Just imagine. I could turn you into a heretic if I wanted.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but she slapped me in the face.
“From now on, you speak only to answer my questions. What will happen is this. I will ask questions. You will answer them. If you do not, or if I do not like the answers, I will take a pair of bricks and put them under your feet. This will continue until your legs break, or until this rope breaks. Do you understand?”
I said nothing. Hester Klemm looked at one of her henchmen.
Hans stepped up and pulled my feet up. Hester Klemm took two bricks, put them under my feet. I felt the rope tightening over my thighs. He let go of my feet.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Now then. What is your name?” The battle had begun. It was a battle I would inevitably lose. All I could hope for was to hold out until help came. I would have to pick my fights carefully, and this question was not one worth dying for.
“Tennant,” I said. “Alexandra Tennant.”
They left me sitting on the bench. She had asked me the name of my ship, and I had given it. She had asked me who was on board, and I had told them my father and my brother and his wife. They asked me about Nazeem, and I said I did not know him very well. That had earned me another pair of bricks under my feet. I had told hem he was some kind of mystic, an Indian wizard, but that he might be a fake. The only grey light came through the gap under the door. The rope was pressing into my thighs, the bricks were grating against my ankles. My arms were numb and I was very thirsty. I had stopped bleeding, which was good. I had stopped sweating, which was a sign of dehydration. I tried to close my eyes, retreat into myself, draw away from the here and now.
There was a sudden scream, a male voice, in such pain that he no longer cared about dignity, cared no more who heard him. The screams went on, grew more desperate, diminished to croaks as the man’s voice gave out. All became quiet. I strained my ears, trying to hear what was happening, but no more noises came. I could hear loud voices, in German, saying something about coffee. The outer door slammed, and all was quiet but for the inaudible sound of despair.
They came to me in the morning. Hester Klemm and her henchmen. I looked her over. She was wearing a bright white shirt, a grey skirt and half-high heeled shoes over stockings. In the night, I had soiled myself and I stank. She pulled up a chair and sat down next to me.
“Good morning, Alexandra. I trust you have had a good night?”
“Very good. A truthful answer. Now then. Your ship, the…” she waited.
“Lady I,” I said. She slapped me.
“Oh dear. And such a promising start, too. You will only speak when I ask a question.” She paused a moment. “Do you understand?”
“Do not let me remind you again. Your airship. What armaments does it have?”
“None,” I said. “She is a research and light cargo vessel.”
Hester Klemm looked at me with a steel expression. “Alexandra. I am most disappointed in you. Do you really think you can lie to me without me knowing it? I don’t allow you to be clever enough to lie to me. This will cost you. Hans?”
Hans walked over, and pulled my feet up. A sudden sharp pain stung my knees, and I gasped, but managed not to scream.
“A little bit higher, Hans,” said Hester, and put two more bricks under my feet. She looked back at me. “There. Now I must warn you, Alexandra. I have seen men walk away from a stack of three bricks, but never from four. Displease me again, and you will spend the rest of your life crawling.” She sat down again, brushed the dust off her skirt. “What armaments does your airship have?”
I honestly could not answer. The pain in my knees was so intense that it had robbed me of the power of speech. Hester Klemm bent over to me. She stroked my cheek gently.
“There, there. Take a deep breath, and answer my question. You wouldn’t want another pair of bricks, now would you?”
“No… No. Rapid fire cannon. Fore and aft.”
“Thank you, Alexandra. See how much better it is when you don’t lie to me?”
“Yes,” I managed.
Throughout the morning, I told them everything about Lady I‘s weapons, engines. I told them how fast she was, how high she could climb. I told them about the evening in Paris, when the airship Aquila abducted our scientists. Then, Hester Klemm sat back in her chair, steepled her fingers.
“My father was on board your airship when it left. Where is he?”
I looked into her eyes, as afraid to answer the question as I was not to answer. I took a breath.
“He is dead.”
“You wouldn’t be lying to me, would you, dear?” She took a brick from the stack and held it up. “I have as many bricks as I need.”
“I’m not lying. He tried to kill us.”
It was the first time I saw Hester Klemm lose control of her expression. It lasted only a moment. She looked at her henchman. “Hans, hol den Schwartzen.”
“Jawohl,” said Hans.
He and the other left the room, leaving me alone with Hester Klemm. She bent over to me.
“You still think there are things we will not do to you, Alexandra. You are still counting on our mercy. Mercy is a thing given to human beings, and you are no longer human. You are nothing more than our little bag of information. My plaything.”
The two henchmen came walking in carrying between them a pole from which hung one of the black men from the Belian-Ibelin mine. At first, I thought he was unconscious, but when they dropped him to the floor, he grunted. They pulled away the pole, and he slumped to the floor, moving slowly.
“Look at him, Alexandra,” said Hester Klemm. “He has betrayed Magister Slate by planning violence against his servants.” She took his wrist in her hand and showed me his blood-stained fingertips. “When your legs are broken, we will tear out your fingernails like this. Then, your toenails. Then, we will hang you by your wrists with your hands behind your back so you can hear your shoulders crack, like we did to him. We will break every one of your ribs so that every breath becomes a symphony of pain, and every cough hell. We will turn you into a creature of pure pain. Do you understand this?”
My breath raced. Hester Klemm slapped me across the face, hard.
“Do you understand?”
“Good. Hans, we are done with this man. Get rid of him.”
Hans picked up the carrying pole. He kicked the man, turning him over onto his back. Then, he put his foot across the man’s throat, raised the pole, and almost like a farmer digging a hole, stabbed down, once. The man twitched, then lay still. Hans’ companion took hold of his ankles, and dragged him out.
Hester pulled up her chair. “Think very well before answering my next question, Alexandra. Where is my father?”
I have never hated anyone like I hated Hester Klemm. I would never have the opportunity to hurt her like I could now, and God forgive me, I took it.
“His bones lie on the bottom of the Dover Narrows,” I said. “You know that he tried to take over our ship. We killed the Jäger on board, but him, we captured alive. But he threatened to stab my brother’s child. His three month old baby. We did not want him alive.”
“You are lying, and you will be sorry you did.”
“I am not lying. We tied his hands and feet together, and hung him from the cargo hook, over the bomb hatch. How he pleaded and begged for his life! And then we cut the rope, and we could hear him scream until he hit the water.”
“Du lügst!” Hester Klemm balled her fist, and punched me in the face, again and again. “You are lying!”
I screamed back at her. “Your father died like a sniveling coward!”
Hester Klemm would surely have beaten me to death, if Hans hadn’t held her back.
“Ruhe Hester! Du wirst sie umbringen!” He glared at me. “You wish to kill her slowly, is that not so?”
Hester Klemm took a breath, then grimaced in a parody of a smile.
“You are right. I need a drink, and maybe a good lunch. See that she has neither.”
She turned round and walked out of the room. Hans turned to me.
“You should not have done that,” he said. He slowly ran his hand along the inside of my thigh, then suddenly gave a push. The sudden stab of pain almost made me faint. “Das reicht schon,” he said. He turned round and left as well.
They did not return for me that afternoon, nor in the night. I was in constant pain, beyond my abilities to fight it off. My ankles were bleeding. The skin on my thighs was turning a dark colour. In that hour, I knew. I was going to die here. I would be in more and more pain, until my heart would simply stop. I thought of my father, of Carl, of Lady I. I saw their faces before me, worried, looking at me from a great distance.
Then I heard it. A low, humming sound, it took me a while to recognise it as a human voice, but it was. Someone was singing in an African language I didn’t know, but that reminded me of Fatin’s native tongue. As I listened, a second voice joined the first, and I was struck by the beauty of those voices, even here in this place of despair. For the tiniest amount of time, I was lost in those voices, and then reality hit me again with a fresh stab of pain to my knees. Wishing to give at least something back, I took a breath, and joined my voice to theirs in prayer, in a whisper at first, then louder, as I wanted these men to hear me, to know I was with them.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths…
There was a loud bang on one of the doors, and a loud Prussian voice telling them to be quiet. I heard one of the doors open, and soon after a howl of anguish, the punishment for the audacity of trying to keep each other’s spirit up. Soon after, my door opened and a Jäger came in. He brought his face close to mine, so I could smell the tobacco on his breath. His hand closed on my bare breast. His other hand was on my throat.
“Klappe halten,” he said. He looked at my body, covered with its own filth, then wiped his hand on his trousers. “You stink,” he said, turned round, and left.
I did not pray out loud after that.
The next morning, my door opened. I was expecting Hester Klemm, more questions, more pain. But it was someone else. A woman wearing a Jäger’s uniform. She had short brown hair, and as she reached out to me, I could see a dark tattoo under her sleeve. She brushed away my hair, and held a cup to my lips. I pulled my head away, fearing it might be poison.
“Drink,” said the woman. “It’s water. See.”
She took a small sip herself, then held the cup up for me again. I drank.
“Easy,” said the woman. “I’ve got more.”
I looked up to her, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Please,” I said. “The ropes. Please. It hurts. Loosen them just a bit.”
“No. Can’t do that.”
“Give them what they want,” said the woman. “They’ll let you go.”
“They’ll kill me.”
She stood up, picked up her bucket of water and the cup. She turned round to leave.
“Wait! My name is Alexandra Tennant. What’s yours?”
She stood still for a moment, turned back to me and looked me in the eye for the first time. “Brenda,” she said. “Brenda Lee.”
“Thank you for the water, Brenda,” I said.
She gave a kind of grunt, then walked out without another word.
The door opened, and Hester Klemm came in, looking fresh and wholesome, with her long hair in plaits and her white shirt impeccable. She gave me a warm and cheerful smile. She had apparently mastered her anger, and was back in control.
“Good morning Alexandra. How are you doing? I see gangrene is about to set in, but you won’t be walking anytime soon anyway. Don’t worry, we won’t let the gangrene kill you. We’ll take away your legs before that happens.”
I said nothing.
“Would you like some news from your family?”
I looked up at her, not sure what to say.
“That was a question, Alexandra. Answer it, or you’ll get another pair of bricks.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Don’t ignore my questions again.” Hester Klemm beamed at me. “We sent our own airship Aquila after them, and shot your little lady out of the sky. I’m afraid none of them survived. I can’t tell you if they burnt to death before they hit the ground, but it made a great show. You should have seen the pillar of smoke, it was beautiful.”
“You’re lying,” I said.
Hester Klemm slapped me in the face. “I did not ask you a question, Alexandra. And after our little chat yesterday, I can’t wait for an excuse to put your feet up some more. Your family is dead. They died screaming. If you were hoping for help, there will be none. Oh, and all the things you told us about your little Lady were very helpful. You helped us kill them. Thank you, Alexandra.”
I no longer had the strength to keep my expression in check, and she simply sat back in her chair, enjoying the anguish on my face. She was lying. She had to be. Lady I with her massive engines was faster than that lumbering hulk. It was impossible!
Hester laughed at me. “You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve learnt everything from you that I need to. You have nothing else that I need. What comes now is purely for my enjoyment.”
“We shot him in the head,” I said. “You still think he died a hero. That he told us to kill him. Because you are still his little girl and look up to him. We dragged him out of his hiding place in the boiler room, and then we made him look into the barrel of a revolver, and he pissed himself. Your father died like he lived, a coward making war on defenceless women and children. And he lost.”
“You think you are going to make me angry again, so I will kill you quickly.” She got up from her chair. “Don’t go anywhere. I will be back soon.”
She came back, with in her hands a box of matches and a candle. She smiled at me, and took a match out of the matchbox. She struck it, and lit the candle. She took a breath and blew out the match. Then she walked over to my feet.
“Look at me,” she said, and played the candleflame under my toes.
Then, she held the candle still.
In a reflex, I tried to pull away my foot from the heat, but trying it sent fresh spikes of pain through my knees. I could smell the smoke. There was nothing I could do except scream. I know now that screaming helps.
“I expect you want me to take the candle away.” She had to shout over my screams.
“That was not a question, Alexandra Tennant.”
She kept the candle where it was.
“Would you like me to remove the candle?”
“Yes,” I screamed. “Please!”
She waited a few more seconds, then took it away. She held it up to the arm of the chair, dripping wax on it, then set it upright.
“The rules are very simple, Alexandra. Be silent unless asked a question. Not counting screams of course, we are not unreasonable. And still, you keep breaking them. And you know what that means.”
Hester bent down and took one of the bricks from the stack. She wasn’t as strong as Hans, and she had to put her back into raising my foot before putting the brick under. She raised my other foot, and this time, I felt something give way in the back of my knee. I could not keep silent. Hester Klemm walked over to the chair and picked up the candle. I could not keep myself from shaking as she approached.
“Now you think about where else I can put this candleflame, Alexandra.”
She blew out the candle and left.
The next person to enter was Brenda Lee. She didn’t say anything, simply put a cup of water to my lips. I drank. She looked me over, and I could see her trying not to lose her calm.
“Holy mother of God, Alexandra. Now is not a good time to piss them off after the big ship got shot down.”
“What?!” I stared at Brenda. “They told me Lady I was shot down!”
Brenda’s face became suddenly hard as stone. “Forget I said that,” she said, and almost ran out of the room.
Hester Klemm came back in the evening. I steeled myself for more of her sadistic gloating. More pain. But I had one thing. I now knew that she had been lying. My family would come for me, if only I could hold out. Whatever this hell-woman would throw at me, I would endure. Father, Carl. They would come to rescue me, and I would be waiting.
She burnt more of my skin with the candle. My feet, my calves, my hands, my arms. I gave her the screams she craved, revenge for the memory of her father. She tightened the rope round my neck, so I couldn’t breathe properly, though not enough to make me lose consciousness. Finally, she seemed satisfied for the moment, looking into my eyes.
“You are almost ready to die, Alexandra. Won’t that be wonderful, to see your family again?”
“You lied to me,” I said. “Where is Aquila? I have not heard her engines for a while. Lady I got away, didn’t she? Soon, the authorities will descend on this place and destroy you all.”
Hester frowned a moment. then laughed. “Is that what Miss Lee told you? Oh my, I didn’t think she would. I must give her something extra for that. I’m glad now I didn’t put out your eyes. There is something I want you to see.”
She disappeared for a few moments behind the red haze of pain, then returned. She held up something in front of me. A revolver. Soot was on the barrel, and the handle was charred, but I could still see the engraving.
Carl Tennant, and the year Father gave it to him.
“We recovered this from the wreckage of your little airship. So much more durable than the hand we pried it out of.”
I started to shake.
“Did you think Brenda was your friend? Your only friend in the whole wide world? I told her to tell you. Now I wonder if it still works.”
As I watched, she put a single bullet in the revolver.
“Open wide, dear.”
She thrust the barrel into my mouth. Cocked the gun. Pulled the trigger. There was only a click.
“You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you Alexandra?”
She put the revolver against my stomach, pulled the trigger again. Nothing happened. Then against my arm. Nothing. Against my thigh.
The revolver went off with a noise louder than anything else I’ve heard, and a burning arrow of fire shot through my leg. Hester dropped the revolver on the floor, sat down on the chair.
“And now, we will enjoy your death together.”
I closed my eyes, tried to breathe slowly. Finally, after all these days, I started to feel numb with the blood loss. Just a few more minutes, and all would be over. I felt strangely at peace with the fact that it had been Carl’s revolver that killed me, the final instrument of mercy. Soon, I would be with him.
I vaguely registered noises with me in the room. A male voice shouting wordlessly, Hester’s voice. Then, the voice of Brenda Lee, who had betrayed me, shouting. Then suddenly, mere inches away from my face, a voice.
“Alex? Drink this.”
I opened my eyes, and saw my brother’s face. He held a cup of water to my lips, and I drank. It tasted bitter. I smiled at him. My mind floated away, and then I knew nothing.
I have read this document now. I have added details as I remembered them. I will, on reflection, not consign them to the fire just yet. Not until I have answered my questions. Did I fight well? Did I win? Did I lose? Did I survive? How will this episode affect the rest of my life? I still cannot walk without crutches. I still wake up in the middle of the night, recalling each and every one of Hester Klemm’s questions. Feeling the ropes. The candle flame. The anguish of knowing that all my family was dead.
I will think on this, and maybe then, burn these papers.